NEW YORK – No doubt, the main objective of the newly-minted chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath’s populist announcement on his first day in office, to give incentives to only those industries that reserve 70% of jobs for state locals, while lambasting resident workers from other states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is to build voter momentum for his Congress party in the run-up to the 2019 general elections in India.
Madhya Pradesh is the second largest Indian state by area and the fifth largest state by population with over 75 million residents. To put that in perspective, if Madhya Pradesh were to be an independent country, it would rank 20th in the world, in terms of population, with countries like the UK, France, Italy and South Africa behind it. Or if part of the US, it would be the largest of the 50 states, far ahead of the most populous one, California, which has around 40 million, followed by Texas and New York, respectively.
Along with his massive $5.3 billion of farm loans waiver, to steady farmers reeling from falling crop prices, Nath’s stunning nativism and protectionist policy on jobs seems to take a leaf out of President Trump’s playbook, albeit from a domestic perspective, rather than a nationalistic one. The only thing missing from Nath is the slogan MMPGA – Make Madhya Pradesh Great Again.
Yogesh Vajpeyi writing in the Hindustan Times noted Nath’s dilemma, struggle to herd in his voters, not let them leave the fold, with the national elections around the corner: despite losing the numbers game, the BJP’s vote share was .1 percentage point more than that of the Congress, in the just concluded Assembly elections in the state. In as many as 10 seats, the margin of victory was less than 1,000 votes. The Congress won seven of these. Two of the other three seats were decided by margins of less than 350 and 121 votes. The Congress came third in 14 seats in Madhya Pradesh and fared even worse in five seats.
Despite the backlash and criticism for his directive on jobs for locals, Nath has adamantly stuck to his parochial position, tried to justify its blatant divisiveness, pointed out some other states in India give preference to locals when it comes to jobs. The chief of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, has shied away from the controversy for now, saying he would talk to Nath on the issue. Seemingly, no talks between the duo have taken place as yet on this important development.
In the meantime, a lawsuit was filed against Nath in a court in Bihar, for “creating an atmosphere of distrust for migrant workers in Madhya Pradesh”.
Scroll reported large numbers of Dalits and Adivasis from the poorest districts of Madhya Pradesh migrate to places such as Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat for work and could face a backlash.
Anurag Modi of the non-profit Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, which advocates for the rights of Adivasi workers, was quoted as saying: “What if these states pass similar diktats? Will the chief minister be able to provide jobs to all of them?”
According to a Central government report based on Census estimates, Madhya Pradesh is placed fourth in terms of people leaving their home state in search of work, after Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, reported Scroll.
Some Congress leaders are baffled too by Nath’s diktat.
“Congress is not a regional party,” an unidentified Congress leader from Bihar, was quoted as saying by Scroll. “The Constitution gives us the right to work anywhere in the country.”
Bihar leader and Rashtriya Janata Dal spokesperson Manoj Jha opined: “Earlier, such a narrow populist thought was propagated by the likes of Shiv Sena and MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) but now even Congress has joined the bandwagon. This reflects the journey of parochialism in India.”
The Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, who could prove to be a critical ally for Congress aspirations to form the next government at the center, too came out swinging against Nath’s move to induce more jobs for locals, reported NDTV.
Nath’s hasty move does suggest one thing, though: that like Trump, who has weathered heavy criticism from not only the Democrats but from allies on the global front, and his detractors, the Congress party is perhaps taking a hard right wing position on the issue of jobs, despite its own liberal image, to strengthen their voter base.
The Hindi heartland – with Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh being the largest – is critical for Congress’ success in the general elections. If they can at least show – forget about implementation – that they are earnest about creating jobs there, even at the risk of ridicule and criticism, their jobs would be all the more easier.
Trump’s voter base has stayed loyal for the fact that the president is seen as tough on restricting immigration, outspoken on creating jobs for Americans. He could win a second term on the basis of those two ‘achievements’ in itself, never mind the actual success of his rhetoric and policies. Now, Nath and the Congress are laying that out in regional India.
The question is: how divisive and damaging would this move by Nath and the Congress party prove to be in a billion plus population country like India, where one of the world’s biggest migrations takes place every month, within domestic borders, for jobs? What if some other states follow suit?
In the US, states pride themselves on luring businesses and talented individuals on the basis of tax incentives and other financial sops. Apparently, in Madhya Pradesh, hope overrides reason. There’s been no talk of honing and reshaping skills of the state’s population, 30% of which is under forest cover, and massive swaths of the population in pockets comprise of unskilled tribals.
For a state where the precision game of snooker was invented, Nath sure has struck one ball right off the table, into unknown territory.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)